Cardin makes the leap, announces U.S. Senate bid

Democratic representative seeks to fill Sarbanes' spot

April 27, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Benjamin L. Cardin, the studious congressman from Baltimore County who has spent his political career mastering fiscal issues such as Medicare reform, announced yesterday that he is running for the U.S. Senate.

Flanked by family members and many city and suburban elected officials, the 10-term Democrat declared his candidacy during a morning speech at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway, then repeated his announcement at events in Frederick and Montgomery County.

He said the waterfront backdrop in Baltimore, with million-dollar condominiums under construction blocks away, symbolized his commitment to the environment and better jobs.

"I stand here today because I've gotten real results," he said. "I stand here today because experience does count."

Cardin, 61, is the third Democrat to enter next year's election to replace Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring. Kweisi Mfume, a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a former Baltimore congressman, has declared his candidacy, as has A. Robert Kaufman, a community activist and perennial candidate.

"Paul Sarbanes is a great voice for our state and our nation, and I intend to carry that legacy on," Cardin said.

Among Republicans, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is contemplating a run and is considered the most likely GOP candidate. Two aides to the lieutenant governor attended Cardin's announcement yesterday. One took notes; the other snapped a picture with her cell-phone camera.

Elected to the Maryland General Assembly at age 23 on the strength of his family's financial support and well-known name among Baltimore's Jewish community, Cardin quickly earned the respect of his colleagues for his intellect and temperament. He was named chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee before he was 30 and later served as House speaker.

"His academic brilliance, his law-making experience, his comprehensive vision and his flawless character will make him an outstanding United States senator," said former Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland, who was in Frederick yesterday.

Along the way, Cardin developed a reputation as a cautious politician who regularly contemplated higher office but never took the leap. He was widely mentioned as a candidate for governor in 1998 and 2002.

`A different ballgame'

Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a polling company used by The Sun, said Cardin's ability to perform well in a highly contested statewide race is unknown.

"It's a different ballgame," Haller said. "You are playing at a higher level. Whether he has the stuff to really go toe-to-toe with someone like Mfume, who is an able articulator of Democratic positions, remains to be seen."

In the House of Representatives, Cardin is a member of the Ways and Means Committee and the ranking Democrat on the Trade Subcommittee.

He counts among his legislative accomplishments a 2001 law increasing contribution limits into IRAs and 401(k) retirement savings plans, and a proposal to expand Medicare benefits to include screening for colorectal, prostate and breast cancer and osteoporosis, according to his official congressional Web site.

Several officials said yesterday that they respected Cardin's ability to work with Republicans to get legislation passed.

"He leads by example," said state Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is endorsing Cardin. "I've watched him cross party lines and it's very impressive."

Cardin promoted his ability to work with both parties, promising to "work to solve problems, not score political points." But he also staked out his differences with the Bush administration, saying he opposes diverting Social Security contributions into private accounts.

Cardin begins the race with a reservoir of support among the Baltimore political establishment, as well as from environmentalists and women's groups. In 2003, for instance, he had a 100 percent voting record from the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America and from the League of Conservation Voters. He is sometimes regarded less favorably by business; his 2003 score from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was 37 percent.

Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was emcee of Cardin's morning announcement, saying "when there's a tough job that needs to be done, Ben is the man." Lainy Lebow-Sachs, a Democratic activist and former aide to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, said she would be helping Cardin raise the $5 million she believes is needed for the race.

But Cardin must also work to overcome what is often regarded as a lack of charisma - especially in a campaign against Mfume, a passionate orator who honed his skills as a radio and television personality. Another disadvantage is his lack of ties to the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, home to hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters.

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